Nothing could compete with the ruckus this week over the disclosure of the colossal salaries in the public sector, except maybe the ruckus over the Knesset decision to extend reserve duty to 43 days a year. Both shed a somewhat ironic light on the trendy concept of the "middle class" - the sector whose welfare and interests were recently etched on the banner of the Shinui party. But of course this party has quickly made itself comfortable in the armchairs of power, and its support for increasing the burden of reserve duty and ambivalent silence on the salary affair have left the "middle class" pondering its very identity.
Indeed, who is entitled to call themselves "middle class" in Israel today? A civil servant for whom NIS 70,000 a month is the salary floor, if not the ceiling? Not a scandal but a status symbol? Or a person who spends months in the reserves, but is meant to take comfort in the fact that the Shas ministers have lost their Volvos? Well, it depends on whom you ask. After all, that's what's so nice about the "middle class." Each to his own, every man for himself (and his own bank account).
If the "middle class" finds itself in a kind of strange political limbo on these fateful (i.e., personal) matters, imagine how lost it must feel in the face of piddling questions like: Where are these extra days of reserve duty going? What population, in what part of the country, do they benefit? Whose policy do they serve? What, in fact, are the priorities of a government that demands draconian cutbacks and belt-tightening from one sector and pours boundless resources into another - on the other side of the Green Line, for instance?
When it comes to such questions, the "political center" is not merely in limbo, but semi-catatonic. So why should anyone wonder that while a storm brews over the micro (public sector wages, reserve duty), there is total apathy and an oddly accepting attitude toward the macro (foreign and defense policy, national priorities), from which everything else follows?
This week, for example, no one kicked up a fuss about official reports (among them a report submitted by the Housing Ministry) attesting to the huge priority given to building and development budgets in the territories at the expense of Israelis living inside the Green Line: Over NIS 10 billion have been channeled into the settlements in the past decade, and hundreds of millions into "rural housing" in the West Bank and the Golan Heights in the span of just three years. And we ain't see nothin' yet.
The equanimity of the "political center" goes completely counter to the signs showing that much of the public has not only made its peace with giving up settlements, but also begun to realize the colossal, historic waste of resources. But how can that compare, interest-wise, to envying the salary of an HMO dentist?
Apart from the settlements, there is one other sphere which leaves the "middle class" and the "political center" deaf and dumb, unwilling to take a stand or criticize: the military sphere, with its increasingly assertive budgetary, and recently, political dictates. In this department, all the political parties take their cue from Sonia Gurevitch, the half-wit kindergarten teacher in the old comedy routine of Shaike Ophir and Uri Zohar, who says: "I hear shooting, I hit the ground. Automatically."
That's what we've all been doing for the past two and a half years: going through the motions of a never-ending emergency drill. And we do it almost without criticism, without thinking, without questioning the absolute dominance that the IDF has assumed over the historical Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Not for nothing do we mention the army and the settlers in one breath. To a certain extent, both operate as extra-parliamentary authorities which have slipped into the leadership vacuum, commandeered the national agenda and are basically determining our fate, lording over us in a way that has become almost natural. What do they care about the aspirations of the "middle class" or the "political center"? What do they care about the "will of the people"?
When we see, as we did this week, how the settlers of Hebron bark orders at IDF officers ("We must demolish their homes on a massive scale"); how the IDF, with the settlers as their guides, blow up a house "as an example to others"; how the settlers and the defense establishment have now started in on Abu Mazen, also ruining his reputation as a legitimate partner - the fog begins to clear.
We realize that we are looking not just at chaos and a blurring of the lines between the army, the occupation and the settlement movement. We are witnessing a deliberate and systematic attempt to hijack the agenda. The goal is settlement at any price, be it economic, military or political, achieved through a program that is fueled by a further escalation of violence and the studious avoidance of a political solution.
"We are a people at war," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeated this week as he demanded that Israelis tighten their belts. Coming from his mouth, after two and a half years, it had the sound not only of a dry fact, but of a declaration of policy.
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